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A lot of messages in "Cinderella"
Home News Tribune Online 10/18/05
By CHARLES PAOLINO
There is more to Cinderella than Walt Disney told you.
While the 1950 animated film might be the first thing that comes to millions of minds when Cinderella is mentioned, the story of the woebegone girl existed in folklore long before Disney turned it into his most popular character save Mickey Mouse himself.
In fact, this tale — which comes to life in a musical version opening tomorrow at the Paper Mill Playhouse — may be the world's best-known fantasy. While its most familiar premise is simple — a mistreated young woman is discovered by a handsome prince, marries him and lives in a state of bliss — it continues to be the subject of exhaustive research and analysis.
As long ago as 1891, 10 years before Disney was born, the Folk-Lore Society of London published a work in which Marian Roalfe Cox collected 345 variations from throughout Europe that contained recognizable elements of the story we know as "Cinderella." Hers was the first study of its kind; since then, more than 700 variants of the story have been identified, coming from at least five continents. The earliest known version dates from 9th century China.
The central figure in these stories is not always called Cinderella — she is Yah-hsien in the Chinese version, Katie Woodencloak in Norway, Trembling in Ireland, Rashin-Coatie in Scotland, Conkiajgaruna in Georgia, and Pepelyouga in Serbia. Nor are the details or even the moral underpinnings of the story constant across cultures.
Perhaps the most familiar versions of the story in the Western Hemisphere are "Cinderella," which was written in the 17th century by Charles Perrault, the author of the "Mother Goose Tales" and "Aschenputtel" — yet another name for the girl — published by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in their 19th century collection of 200 folktales. Scholars maintain that Perrault and the Grimms probably altered the original story for their own purposes, but what they published provides the foundation for the fairy tale known to most American children, and for the musical being presented at Paper Mill.
This is an adaptation of a version of the story produced for television in 1957 (and updated in 1997) with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Richard Rodgers. The cast includes Angela Gaynor as Cinderella, Larry Keith as the king, and Suzzanne Douglas as the fairy godmother.
"Cinderella," in several of its forms, has been the subject of some controversy, particularly about the gender stereotypes some critics believe are reinforced by the Perrault-Disney template. Women's history professor Karol Kelley made that argument in a 1994 article in the Journal of American Culture, and she maintained that the story, sans any feminist principles, had yet another reincarnation in the Julia Roberts movie "Pretty Woman."
But Pablo Montalban, who plays the prince in this production, as he did in the '97 TV production and in a national stage tour about four years ago, finds plenty of value in the musical.
"The appeal of this show," he said, "is that it is based on some of the very best telling of "Cinderella' — Charles Perrault and "Aschenputtel' — as opposed to more recent versions. It teaches children that they have control over their destiny. It's not about waiting around for the prince to come along. It's about actually making that happen inside yourself. And when you do make it happen inside, it happens on the outside, too."
Montalban also sees in the fairy tale presented on stage an opportunity for individuals to exercise their emotions.
"It's important, psychologically speaking," he said. "You can separate the difference between the good parent and the bad parent. You can hate the wicked stepmother and love the fairy godmother. You can hate and love in a safe way because it's imaginary.
"There are a lot of messages that come across in this story," he added. "Maybe they weren't thinking about these things when the original storytellers created them, but it becomes a sort of fringe benefit."
And the appeal, according to Montalban, isn't only to the young.
"That's what's so great about the piece," he said. "It's a great universal story that children can appreciate, but it doesn't dumb down to the audience, so the parents can appreciate it as well. There is a certain darkness to it that I really enjoy. It's not completely sunny and bright.
"And it's real. These are real people thrust into extraordinary circumstances."
This production was created with the long history of the Cinderella story in mind. The director of the national tour, Gabe Barre, is also directing at Paper Mill, and Montalban said Barre has not relied on only one source.
"Gabriel is using the framework that the Rodgers and Hammerstein script has," Montalban said, "but he is also adding essences and nuances from many of the different Cinderella stories throughout the ages."
For instance, he incorporates a scene from the Grimms' story in which Cinderella — neglected by her father and abused by her stepmother and her daughters — visits the grave of her birth mother and plants a twig that grows into a tree.
"Gabriel has the device of the tree that signifies the mother," Montalban explained, "the tree she waters every day with her tears. That's a really strong piece of imagery — having the tree be the mother figure."
And this is a fairy story, after all, in which things are not always what they seem to be.
"There is some magic in it," Montalban said in a teasing tone of voice. "How else are we going to turn a pumpkin into a coach?"
"Cinderella" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Paolo Montalban website: http://www.ePaolo.com